On a recent Saturday night, Anthony Rossman watches in silence as an artist engraves a line of black ink into his upper right arm. This is his first tattoo, and he’s driven eight hours from Odessa to have it done at Prison Break Tattoos on Washington Ave. “It just made sense,” he says, grimacing the tiniest bit, because Rossman’s a policeman—hence his choice of an American flag crossed by a blue line, an homage to fallen officers—and so is the parlor’s owner.
BK Klev, an HPD sergeant and ink aficionado, opened Prison Break Tattoos in October 2013, wanting to create an environment where off-duty public servants would feel at home. “I never felt comfortable, because I didn’t know who was tattooing me,” he says, referring to the parlors that helped give him the sleeves he sports on each arm. “I didn’t know who was coming in the front door. I didn’t know if the guy in the corner was high on something, so there was always that insecurity where I couldn’t sit and relax.”
What Klev finds relaxing is, perhaps, unusual. At his metal bar–lined shop, customers are buzzed in prison-style, past a sign that reads “Danger. Electric Fence.” There’s a mannequin in police uniform, holding a box of Shipley donuts and guarding the front gate, and another one—an “inmate”—lying in a jail bed. But Klev’s prize possession is a faux electric chair, complete with shock button, that’s become a popular spot for photo and video ops.
A community of active and retired first responders has quickly coalesced around the place. Public servants of every stripe regularly travel here from Oklahoma, New Jersey, New York and North Carolina. During Rossman’s appointment, an HPD officer stops in to chat about family, work and his next tattoo. “You learn a lot about people when they come here,” says Klev. “Sometimes people want to talk about their tattoos and the stories behind them; sometimes they don’t.”
Adding to the comradely atmosphere, a portion of the proceeds for each job—which can run up to $1,000 a pop—goes to the 100 Club of Houston, a nonprofit that aids families of fallen public employees. “I’ve lost a lot of brothers and sisters in my past 22 years with the HPD,” says Klev. “I wanted to give back to people I worked with … and support men and women who support me.”
As midnight approaches and Rossman’s tattoo nears completion, he starts to look tired. He has to make the long drive home in the morning, and then it’s back to work. “I’m not here for long—just enough to get some ink,” he says. But he seems to perk up when another customer, Alec Candelari, whips out his cell phone to show off photos from his four years in the Marine Corps Force Recon.
“That’s me over Mount Fuji,” the Marine says, his forearm extended as an artist etches two paratroopers onto it alongside with the words, “Never Above You, Never Below You, Always Beside You.” “We’re a tight-knit group and went through a real hard selection process,” Candelari explains. “You’re there for your brothers through everything.”